It’s easy to tell when sheepshead season arrives here in Southwest Florida: Air and water temperatures drop into the 60s and there is increased activity on our local piers. Look for pier anglers leaning over the rail with their rods pointing down at the pilings. There will also be boats anchored around other pilings fishing for these tasty porgies.
This year, with the closure of snook, trout and redfish to allow them time to recover from last year’s red tide disaster, even more anglers will be targeting sheepshead for a seafood dinner. They must be longer than 12 inches and the daily limit of 8 is more than enough. They are a pain to fillet and with their big bones, and a 12-inch fish doesn’t yield enough to justify the effort or the kill. At about 16 inches the meat-to-bone ratio shifts and makes for a pretty good fillet. Smaller ones are perfect for grilling whole.
Kayak anglers know from experience that sheepshead don’t spend their whole lives staring at pilings looking for crabs or barnacles to consume. Most of us have seen these wary fish spooking from our kayaks as we drift or paddle across the flats.
We usually don’t cast to these spooked fish with artificial soft baits, though some have been caught that way. There is no way to cast ahead of a fleeing sheepshead to get a strike. Once they kick it into high gear, their dining is done for a while. Sight-fishing for sheepshead on the flats is possible but requires clear water and a high perspective to see them before they spook. Kayakers generally are low to the water, making sight-fishing problematic.
A workable solution is to find a spot where they are gathering to feed on bait the tidal flow is bringing their way. This method is similar to the way we target sheepshead on the beach. By walking along looking for deeper cuts through the bar with reduced wave action, we find fish hanging in a specific area. Likewise, finding sheepshead on the flats involves some searching with bait, though bait is usually attacked by pinfish that frequent these spots.
The best part is that once a sheepshead is located, there are usually several in that same location. Another thing we find interesting is the size of these flats fish. They are usually larger, on average, than smaller sheepshead around the piers.
We use live shrimp or pieces for searching. Of course, shrimp won’t stand up to attacks by pinfish, lizardfish and puffers. Fiddler crabs are also a favorite bait but may be harder to find or buy on a specific day. Rather than try to find tougher baits, we usually go with shrimp to have a chance at trout, redfish, pompano and other gamefish working this same area. When big fish move into an area in groups, they will displace the bait thieves.
We have all heard the advice about setting the hook just before they strike. That’s impossible. But it is possible to tell whether you are feeding pinfish or sheepshead by the type of strike you feel. Pinfish in particular will feel like a buzz or series of rapid small jerks.
With sheepshead, you will feel a single jerk followed by slack line. Later, when a steady pressure is detected, set the hook. Wait for the steady pressure. The initial jerk is the fish crushing the bait then backing off to see if it’s dead. Once satisfied that the bait is real, they eat it.
On a recent trip, we found a bunch of sheepshead feeding on a sandy area in about 3 feet of water. Since it was blowing pretty hard, we anchored upwind, enabling us to stay in one location without drifting past them. These larger sheepshead liked our chin-hooked live shrimp, but that can get expensive if they just eat the tails. They also accepted shrimp pieces. We like to use the head and legs section, which looks like a crab and hides the hook really well.
Size 1/0 circle hooks work great for this “wait for the steady pressure” system, especially when coupled with sensitive braided main line. A small splitshot helps the shrimp slowly sink to the bottom. We always use a couple of feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader in this situation.
So, the next time you are kayaking and spook a bunch of sheepshead on the flats, mentally mark the spot and come back an hour later with a freelined shrimp. If nothing but pinfish show up, look around for other spots nearby that offer the same structure until you find where they went. It’s probably not far.